Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has arguably been the Republican Party's most vocal advocate of a more cautious and restrained approach to foreign policy and military intervention abroad. But his base of support doesn't lean as libertarian as you might think.
A couple of data sets show why. First is a somewhat surprising finding in the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Reid J. Epstein writes:
The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 44% of the people who hold a favorable view of the Kentucky Republican want the U.S. to become more involved in world affairs. About a third of Mr. Paul’s supporters said the country should become less involved and 17% said the current level of engagement is appropriate.
In other words, among Paul fans, there are many hawks, despite his cautionary rhetoric when it comes to intervening abroad.
Second, consider new poll data from the Pew Research Center indicating the Republican Party -- and more notably, tea party Republicans -- has grown much more concerned in recent months that the government is not doing enough to protect the country from terror threats.
A November 2013 Pew poll, coming in the wake of the leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about sweeping government surveillance, showed the GOP was evenly divided between concerns about civil liberties and safety. The tea party, in which Paul is a major star, was much more concerned about civil liberties.
But as worries about the threat posed by the Islamic State and unrest in Syria and Iraq have risen, so to has anxiety that the government's anti-terror policies are not doing enough to protect America, as the following chart shows.
Last fall, just 33 percent of tea party Republicans said they were more concerned the government's anti-terror policies were not going far enough to protect Americans than they were about them infringing on civil liberties. That number has shot up to 59 percent. Among all Republicans, it has jumped by 23 points. Democrats and independents have moved more modestly in the direction of concerns about about safety.
All of which leads us to Paul's notably hawkish position on the Islamic State, which caught some by surprise considering his careful views on intervention, but are consistent with the political demands of the day.
"Some pundits are surprised that I support destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militarily," he recently wrote in a Time op-ed. "They shouldn’t be. I’ve said since I began public life that I am not an isolationist, nor am I an interventionist. I look at the world, and consider war, realistically and constitutionally."
But Paul has been a target of criticism from more hawkish Republicans like Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). And he has seemed to relish the opportunity to go toe to toe with them and stake out his position on the libertarian end of the national security spectrum.
The public's position on national security is, like most things, heavily dependent on external events. Snowden's leaks came at a time when the Islamic State had not entered into the national consciousness, freeing people to be more concerned about feeling violated than feeling unsafe.
In recent weeks, the Islamic State's brutal executions of two American journalists have dominated the news, drawing a clear line between what is happening in the Middle East and what it means in the U.S.
For Paul, the political demands of moving toward a run for president, which he appears to be doing, mean he must temper his rhetoric according to shifts caused by external events. He appears to be doing just that.